Comparing Old and New World wines
We often hear the terms ‘Old World and ‘New World’ when referring to wine – but what does it actually mean?
Well – the Old World refers to where modern winemaking originated – in Europe and the New World is outside Europe, e.g. America, South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand etc. The main differences found are in the style of wine produced which is a result of climate, winemaking techniques and certain traditions which influence the taste and flavour characteristics of the wine.
Many of the international grape varieties originated in France. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have many indigenous varieties that are not seen outside their country and so help to distinguish their wine in this way. The advantage is that these wines do make a point of difference when making a choice about which wine to buy. This is where New World wines have made such huge inroads into wine consumption in the UK. The Australians started the trend to label the wine by the grape variety and all the other New World countries followed suit which proved extremely popular. This is still the trend today where most consumers choose their wine by grape variety and so over the last decade or so Old World producers make a number of wines where the grape is on the label, which is outside their strict rules, but in order to compete on price and style.
Style of wine
Wine from the Old World often reflects the terroir or the place where the vines have been planted and tends to emphasise the surrounding region and the historical/ cultural context of the area. In most European countries, there are strict rules governing which grape variety can be planted in each region along with maximum yields and alcohol levels allowed. This is very important to Old World producers so that their style of wine can be distinguished from other wines with the same grape variety on the basis of ‘terroir’ as well as winemaking techniques. Old world wine can sometimes, although not always, appear less fruity than its New world counterpart because the sense of place is often prioritised over making the wine more fruity.
On the other hand, New world wine places the grape itself at the heart of the winemaking – often emphasising the fruitiness in the grape. Since the UK starting importing high volumes of wine from the New world in the 1980s – this style of wine has proved to be very popular – sometimes at the expense of wines from the Old world. New World wines are not governed by the same strict rules that exist in Europe and plant their grapes in regions which are best suited to that particular variety. For example, Riesling grows best in a cooler climate so the best examples in Australia come from the Clare valley, adjacent to the Barossa Valley, but at altitude. Pinot Noir also prefers a cooler climate and some of the best examples come from Tasmania and New Zealand.
However, about twenty years ago, Old world producers were beginning to be left behind by the popularity of New World wines and therefore today are producing more wines outside their respective tight rule boundaries in order to compete. For example, some wines have the grape variety on the label to make them more accessible to the consumer as well as making them fruitier and easier drinking. Likewise, a number of New world countries such as Chile are creating smaller, premium areas in order to produce wines that reflect the ‘terroir’ and give a sense of ‘place’ as such become more distinctive and unique.
Body of the wine
Many New World countries have a warm climate for much of the year and in wine terms – more warmth means more body in the wine and a higher alcohol level. But, it is not as cut and dried as that because New Zealand has a cool maritime climate as does Tasmania and these regions are not suitable to ripen grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Grenache. On the other hand, some regions of France, Spain and Italy can become very warm in summer producing equally full-bodied wine and high alcohol levels. However, what can be said is that in countries such as Australia, warm or even hot weather is consistent or pretty much guaranteed whereas in Europe this is not always the case. A cool year or a bad harvest can seriously spoil the grapes for that year and some may not ripen at all. Too much rain might be a problem in Europe which causes disease to the grapes, but in the New world – the opposite is true – tool little rain can be a problem so many vines have to be irrigated to combat this problem which can be expensive.
Here are three comparisons between Old World and New World wines
Chardonnay is an international grape variety grown all over the world and produces a range of different styles from fresh and crisp as in Chablis to full-bodied with tropical fruit such as in Australia. France is considered the home of Chardonnay and some of the best (and most expensive) are produced in the Cote d’Or in Burgundy. These wines tend to be citrusy, with aromas of white peach, honeysuckle, hazelnuts, anise with a delicate creamy texture and a medium body. Many of the best age for decades and develop a great depth of complexity. Tasmania is also known throughout the world as producing high quality Chardonnay; its cool maritime climate is ideal for letting the grapes ripen slowly so they can develop their full flavour profile. These wines use very similar techniques to those in Burgundy such as fermenting and maturing in old oak and battonage (stirring the lees) which produces the rich, creamy texture. Perhaps the main difference is the price; wines from the Cote d’Or can sell for hundreds of pounds and age for decades whilst the wines from Tasmania are not cheap, but do not reach nearly the same price.
All the top Syrahs in France come from the Northern Rhone with Hermitage and Cote Rotie considered among the best in the world. All the Northern Rhone wines have slightly different rules as to whether small amounts of white grapes such as Viognier, Marsanne or Roussanne are allowed in the blend – most are 100% Syrah.
Crozes Hermitage are the most affordable wines in the region, but It seldom has the rich, soft black fruit of Australian Shiraz, nor the complexity and elegance of the more expensive wines of the Northern Rhône. It is medium-bodied, not too headily alcoholic and often seems to combine the scent of black cherries with white pepper, backed by juicy acidity and relatively firm, sometimes slightly green tannins. Aussie Shiraz is full bodied with plenty of ripe red and black fruit, a little black pepper with savoury notes and a rich texture.
The Haut -Medoc area on the left bank of the Medoc in Bordeaux produces some of the most expensive Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. These wines are complex with high tannins with notes of liquorice, blackberry and spice. Many of the top wines are meant for long term cellaring where the wine keeps evolving, developing more complexity and depth. These wines are always blends with Merlot and Petit Verdot which helps to soften the tannins and are known all over the world as the ‘Bordeaux blend’. In countries such as Australia, South Africa and California in the USA, Cabernet Sauvignon can be made as a varietal (e.g 100% Cabernet). This is because the climate is warm enough to fully ripen the berries which results in deep, jammy blackcurrant and plum fruit, soft, ripe tannins, a full body, high alcohol often with notes of tobacco leaf.
In this short article, I have summarised the main differences between Old world and New world wine and of course, there are exceptions and variation in the wine profiles due to the reasons mentioned above. Wine can be a complex subject, but just knowing the style of wine you enjoy and where you can find it can really simplify the process!
Rowena Hawtin (DipWSET)